LeBron returns to Cleveland a more efficient, mature player that can take team further

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When he left, the Cavaliers were “LeBron and the LeBronettes” — it looked like a one man show. LeBron James was the best player in the game but he seemed to have plateaued, and the team around him was degenerating.

The LeBron James that returns to Cleveland is fully realized — the physical gifts were always there but his game is more efficient and mature. LeBron can beat you just about any way he chooses but now is smart enough to recognize the best way to do it.

It’s a LeBron who is personally more mature — you could see it in how he handled the announcement compared to four years ago.

It’s a LeBron who understands what it takes to climb to the mountaintop and can lead by example in a way he could not before — and in the interim the Cavaliers put together a talented and moldable roster that he can lead.

One can see the challenge but one can also see the fit.

Offensively, LeBron has always had a versatile game — he can play any position 1-4, he can post his defender up or take him out to the three point line and knock down shots over him, not to mention put the ball on the floor and blow by him. He’s a lightning quick point guard in a Karl Malone body. The tools have always been impressive. What is more impressive is how he has learned to use them.

LeBron has chosen efficiency. His final season in Cleveland LeBron took 32.2 percent of his shots from the long-midrange (10 feet out to the three point line) — the least efficient shot on the court. Last season in Miami that was down to 25.2 percent of his shots. In their place he got to the rim more often (39.9 percent of his shots last season were inside three feet) and he’s taking (and hitting) more threes.

That’s part of the reason he had a career best true shooting percentage of .649 last season, up from a still very good .604 his final season in Cleveland.

But the numbers only tell part of the story.

What has really changed is the mindset and maturity of LeBron’s game — he understands how to win now. He has Pat Riley, Dwyane Wade and Eric Spoelstra to thank for some of that, but he also has the Dallas Mavericks as well. Despite the myths his critics like to tell themselves, winning didn’t come easy to the Heat. After losing in the 2011 Finals they had to have an honest discussion of who they were as a team and what sacrifices as players they were willing to make.

LeBron did his soul searching. He called guys who understood losing on the big stage and how to learn from it, including the legendary Jerry West. He absorbed.

Dwyane Wade told LeBron to take over, make it his team, it was time. LeBron did and the Heat won back-to-back tittles.

Things changed a little this season in Miami as the team aged and the burden of carrying them fell heavily on LeBron. He struggled with consistency of effort, particularly on the defensive end last season. Mind you when he is focused he is as good a defender as there is in the league, but under all the weight he carried for the team last year that effort wasn’t there. He settled for more jumpers (especially against the tight rotations of the Spurs in the Finals). Miami fell short.

LeBron did some soul searching again and came to the conclusion he wanted to go home to Northeast Ohio.

This LeBron can carry a team further than the one that left, and at moments he will have to do that with a young squad that doesn’t know winning, let alone winning a title.

But this LeBron knows how to lift a team up with him, how to lead and teach, how to help others grow. That is what he brings back from Miami that he left without. He brings back a fully realized, mature game because he is a more mature person that needed to go away to learn those lessons.

Cleveland is about to benefit from all of it.

Joe Johnson dominates late, Jazz beat Clippers 105-98 to even series 2-2

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Rudy Gobert was back at center, giving the Jazz an emotional boost and someone who can match up with DeAndre Jordan (although Gobert wasn’t moving like his normal self).

Gordon Hayward had to leave the game with food poisoning.

It didn’t matter, the Jazz had Joe Johnson. The veteran forward who knows how to get buckets scored or assisted on 20 straight points for Utah in the fourth, sparking a run that got the Jazz a 105-98 come-from-behind win.

The series is now tied 2-2, heading back to Los Angeles for Game 5 Tuesday.

When people talk about Johnson, the first thing that seems to come up is the oversized contract Atlanta gave him, but they forget this is a seven-time All-Star. He was nicknamed “iso-joe” because of how Mike Woodson’s offense used him heavily in isolation for the Hawks, but that was playing to the strength of his skill set. He can get buckets. Just ask the Clippers, as Johnson finished with 28.

The return of Gobert, a quietly strong game from Derrick Favors, plus maybe something else (like the heavy load last game) seemed to wear on DeAndre Jordan, who was not as sharp as normal in this one. The Clippers again leaned on Chris Paul — 27 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds — and Jamal Crawford who had 25 points off the bench. However, take those two out of the equation and the rest of the Clippers shot just 34.2 percent against that elite Jazz defense. In the fourth quarter, the entire Clippers’ team shot 31.4 percent total.

Utah got good performances from their role players, who stepped up with Hayward out. Rodney Hood had 18 points and some key buckets in the fourth. Then there was Joe Ingles, who defended CP3 for stretches, was a force getting where he wanted on the pick-and-roll leading to 11 assists, plus he had two key threes down the stretch.

The Clippers clearly missed Blake Griffin in some of these matchups, but Los Angeles is going to have to adjust to that in this series because he’s not returning.

This series is even and feels like it may well go seven. The Clippers have two out of the remaining three at home, and they have the best player in the series in Chris Paul. All that may not be enough if the Jazz role players keep stepping up.

Watch Paul George lose JR Smith, put Cavaliers guard on skates with crossover

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Game 4 between the Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers was hotly-contested in the first half. The Cavaliers led, 58-52, after two quarters.

But one special play came when Indiana’s Paul George put JR Smith on his heels, with the Cavaliers guard reeling back some 10 feet after a pull-back crossover left George alone at the 3-point line.

Via Twitter:

You might say George pushed off with his left hand, but you could also point out that Smith then turned a flop-like head kick into an actual blown defensive assignment.

Cleveland completed the series sweep on Indiana with the win, 106-102.

Kobe Bryant’s new Canvas video is brought to you by the letter O (for Obsession)

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Kobe Bryant’s Canvas series returned to our television screen on Saturday. The Sesame Street-like videos center around finding a place to draw motivation from in order to, as the most recent video says, dominate the will of your opponent.

They’re … weird.

They are also extremely Kobe-ish in that they stay true to the former Los Angeles Lakers great’s internal vision of how to play basketball.

The last one we saw was all about finding a musecage, and using your dark thoughts to propel you to win. This one is all about obsession, and how that emotion separates those who like to win from true competitors.

I’m personally all for these videos. They are maybe a little cheesy, or single-minded, but that’s sort of the point. It accurately reflects Kobe, which is something you don’t often see from retired players trying to transition their brand from player to former player.

Isaiah Thomas scores 33, Celtics beat Bulls 104-95 to tie series

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CHICAGO (AP) Isaiah Thomas scored 33 points, and the Boston Celtics beat the Chicago Bulls 104-95 on Sunday to tie their first-round playoff series at 2-all.

Boston blew a 20-point lead, but Thomas keyed a third-quarter run that put the Celtics back on top after Chicago briefly went ahead.

Gerald Green made four 3-pointers on his way to 18 points, helping the top-seeded Celtics return the favor in Chicago after dropping the first two games at home. Al Horford added 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Game 5 is Wednesday in Boston.

Jimmy Butler carried the Bulls with 33 points and nine assists. Nikola Mirotic and seldom-used Isaiah Canaan each scored 13 points, but Dwyane Wade finished with just 11.

Canaan made his first appearance since April 10, with Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg searching for help at point guard with Rajon Rondo missing his second straight game because of a broken right thumb.

The Celtics led by 20 in the second quarter and were still up 10 in the third when Chicago scored 12 straight. The Bulls went ahead 65-63 on Robin Lopez‘s hook shot with 4:35 left in the quarter.

Thomas answered with back-to-back layups and scored 10 points in a 12-0 run that gave the Celtics a 75-65 lead, and they withstood a push by the Bulls early in the fourth.

With Thomas and Green each scoring 16 in the first half, the Celtics carried a 57-46 lead into the break.

Butler led the Bulls with 17 in the half. But the offense struggled in a big way with Rondo unavailable. Jerian Grant started and went to the bench after about five ineffective minutes. Michael Carter-Williams then picked up two quick fouls, forcing the Bulls to go with Canaan in the first quarter.

The Celtics, meanwhile, led 41-21 early in the second quarter. But things started to turn after Canaan stole the ball from Marcus Smart and scored on a layup.

Smart feigned throwing the ball at Butler. The two came nose to nose, resulting in technical fouls for both players, and the Bulls started to shoot their way back into it.

Mirotic hit a pair of 3-pointers and scored eight in the quarter. Bobby Portis cut it to 52-42 with his basket late in the half, and Butler hit two free throws with 22.6 seconds left to make it 57-46.

RONDO FINED

The NBA fined Rondo for attempting to trip Boston Celtics forward Jae Crowder from the bench in Game 3. Crowder jawed at the Bulls’ bench after hitting a jumper and Rondo extended his leg as Crowder walked by.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Thomas was just 1 of 9 on 3-pointers but made 12 of 13 free throws.

Bulls: Butler made 19 of 23 foul shots after failing to get to the line in Game 3. … Canaan was inactive for the first three games.